The Surprise History Thread

On this date in 1904, the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian Pacific Fleet at Port Arthur (modern day Lushunkou, China), initiating the Russo-Japanese War. Admiral Togo Heihachiro, Japan’s brilliant naval leader, planned to incapacitate the Russian fleet with an all-out assault on its naval forces at Port Arthur in prelude to a land assault. But Togo received (false) intelligence that the Russians had been alerted to the attack in advance, and sent a limited force of destroyers and torpedo boats to harass the Russian fleet.

The attack on Port Arthur is often compared to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor four decades later. Although there’s an obvious similarity in a surprise attack against a naval fleet at harbor, the actual assault wasn’t nearly as militarily decisive. The Japanese vessels fired a total of 16 torpedoes at their opponents before withdrawing; only three hit their targets, but they managed to strike and disable two of the Russian fleet’s largest warships. A brief surface battle occurred the following day which resulted in Togo’s fleet being driven away by combined Russian warships and shore batteries. Casualties on both sides were minimal and no ships were actually lost.

Even so, the attack was a massive psychological blow against the perceived invincibility of the Russians towards the “backwards” Japanese. The Japanese followed up with further attacks that destroyed the Russian fleet completely and a massive land invasion that resulted in several massive battles with the Russian Army. Despite being heavily outnumbered by the Russians, the Japanese managed to win decisive battles at the Yalu and Mukden due to their military skills and the utter incompetence of their Russian opponents. Still, it took a five month siege to reduce Port Arthur itself; the massive trench battles in that operation, which claimed 58,000 Japanese and 31,000 Russian lives, prefigured those of the First World War.

When Port Arthur fell in January 1905, the Japanese had effectively won the war. Unless, of course, the Russian Baltic Fleet which had sailed around the world could defeat Togo and reverse the tide…but that’s a tale for another day, when I have more time to research and prepare a proper article.